WAILUKU, Maui — For me, every weekend spent on my home island of Maui means a Saturday morning at the Maui Swap Meet (now on the grounds of Maui Community College; mauiexposition.com).
There’s not much of the original swap meet character left at this sprawling weekly event, but it’s no Farm Bureau-style, local-only farmers’ market, either. It’s an amalgam, with produce stands, bento and bakery booths, the inevitable smoothie-bubble drink-shave ice-flavored popcorn group and — by far the most prevalent — giftmakers and crafters.
Saturday morning, I was there just after 7 a.m., paying my 50 cents and looking for breakfast. Warm samosas? Coconut candy? Filipino egg pies? Brace yourself, dear digestive system, Wanda’s grazing
In the Islands, a well-made, fresh samosa — stuffed, deep-fried pastries in the Indian tradition — is as elusive as a cheap parking space in downtown Honolulu. The version I tried at the Maui Samosas booth surprised me with its spiciness; vendors tend to be timid with spices, and samosas tend to be filled with bland potato and overcooked peas.
Not so with the beef or vegetable samosas I tried: They were jumping with chili spice and full of toothsome ingredients, including fresh corn. The pastry rated a passing grade; where it’s often soggy or over-hard, these samosas were properly crisp, not too oily. There are two schools of samosa pastry: lumpia-like and flaky crust-like, these were of the lumpia school but I prefer flaky. I did like that the friendly saleswoman made sure I got a side of lime and knew how to use it (bite into the samosa, then squeeze lime juice into the filling).
Next door to Maui Samosas, Hawaiian Heritage Candies brought back memories: buying coconut candy from a roadside stand in Hana on my honeymoon, and sharing the recipe later with Advertiser readers, particularly one who has become a fast friend and now sends me envelopes full of vintage recipes (Thanks, Auntie).
Jeannie, the charming co-owner of the company — her husband-partner is a coconut-loving Tongan and she’s from coconut-shy North Carolina — sympathized with me about the knuckle-busting nature of making the candy from paper-thin strips of coconut meat. Her tips: Crack the coconut in half and bake at 250 degrees until the coconut pulls away from the shell a bit, making it easier to harvest. And use a sharp mandoline (or a Japanese slicer), rather than an old-fashioned vegetable peeler, to shave the coconut meat.
I’m addicted to this confection. So is Jeannie (apologies, I never got her last name), who founded the company because homemade coconut candy is a tradition that’s getting lost — too many kupuna have hung up their vegetable peelers, too many coconut trees have been cut down and young folks don’t know the secrets of the long, slow caramelizing process. Unlike the Maui Samosas, you can buy the coconut candy or her macadamia nut peanut brittle, via mail-order (hawaiianheritagecandies.com).
At a booth operated by Tagalog speakers, I cruised Filipino confections such as bibingka (mochi fudge), flan, puto (rice muffins) and turon (banana and jackfruit lumpia) but settled on something I’d not seen before: tiny, little tarts topped with bits of orange fruit on top of a well-browned custard.
The man behind the goodies was chatting in Tagalog with all his customers, but when I asked what the dish was called, he answered “small egg custards.” “No,” I said, “in Tagalog.” He gazes at the sky and his customers went silent. “We call it……small egg custards.”
Biting into the hand-shaped pastry, I encountered not the silky egg custard familiar from Chinese dim sum meals, but a somewhat grainy, sweet, flan-like thing. To be honest, there wasn’t much flavor though the sweets are certainly pleasant with hot coffee or tea. And even online, on Web sites that name other dishes in Tagalog or other Philippines dialects, I couldn’t find a name other than “Filipino custard” or, more accurately, “egg pie.”
There was little unfamiliar at the Meet but I did have an enjoyable chat with a couple of young chefs who have partnered in a new business, Maui Preserved, a line of pickled, Maui-grown, Maui-made products, as well as hot sauce, pineapple bottled in cane syrup, Maui-grown vanilla beans, fruit-infused syrups, salsa and green chili-lime marmalade. They are Maleta Van Loan and Anthony LaBua-Keiser of Ha’iku. Attracted by the bright colors, I bought a jar of Dill Pickled Beets and one of Smoked Cocktail Tomatoes.
A foodie friend and I conducted a mini-tasting later and found both products a bit too sharply vinegared. She couldn’t find the dill or the smoke at all, she said. I could, at the front of the taste, followed by a big vinegar hit.
I plan to use the beets — with the addition of a judicious amount of sugar and a good bit of butter — to make classic Harvard Beets. And I think the tomatoes have a home on a pizza (not entirely covering the pizza but sliced and interspersed among sweeter heirloom tomatoes).
The pair have done a gorgeous job of packaging; I just think they need to tweak the pickling solution a bit. The food business is parlous; I wish Maui Preserved and other food newbies the best.
Tomorrow: Wanda, let’s eat. (Some more.)